Does short-term volunteering abroad do more harm than good?


This month the London International Development Centre (LIDC) with The Guardian Global Development Network hosted a talk on voluntourism as part of a series of panel debates on key issues in international development. Speakers included Tricia Barnett, Director at Equality in Tourism, Dr. Jim Butcher, Reader in the Geography of Tourism at Canterbury Christ Church University and Alex Kent, International Director of Strategy at Restless Development. Shefali Shah went along to find out more.

It is a question that has long been debated in international development. Whether you are a student or graduate looking to gain experience abroad, or a skilled professional wanting to do more, most people choosing to volunteer overseas are motivated by a private desire to help. And there is no shortage of organisations, both public and private, offering such opportunities. From gap year placements on conservation or teaching projects to DfID’s International Citizen Service (ICS), 50,000 volunteers are placed overseas each year through 85 organisations in the UK alone.

But what difference can those volunteering overseas on short-term projects really expect to make when development is so complex? And what should organisations and volunteers themselves be doing to make the most of what they have to offer?

Volunteering versus voluntourism

So-called voluntourism, a combination of volunteering and travel, offers tourists the chance to experience a developing country and its culture while lending support to a local community.

The idea that just anyone can make a difference to development in a short period of time has faced intense scrutiny and not only from development experts. Tricia Barnett, Director at Equality Tourism described voluntourism as being “[about] us versus them, those with versus those without, the strong versus the weak.”

Where volunteers are selected for the experience or their ability to pay, this can lead to gaps in culture, status, and background. As a result, voluntourism places the needs of the volunteer above those of the communities they help, focusing more on what the volunteer wants to do, rather than the skills they can bring.

In an industry worth around $173 billion each year, companies can often be seen to be gaining more than the disadvantaged communities they work with. The NGO Lumos recently reported on the impact of orphanage voluntourism in Haiti. Philanthropic funds from overseas are creating an incentive for child trafficking such that orphanage directors were found to be recruiting children to their orphanages for profit.

Whether it is profit or advantage among other businesses, voluntourism is often sold as a means of enhancing an individual’s CV. And as anyone wanting to work in the international development sector knows, experience overseas can be crucial in standing out amongst the competition.

Who really benefits?

From millennials to Generation X, young people today are more engaged in global issues. More than 80% see it as their duty to change the world. A lack of trust in Western governments alongside growing inequality, climate change, migration, and unemployment has meant youth are increasingly looking to society to take on global citizenship.

Organisations that offer volunteering play an important role in connecting young people to build momentum and ultimately drive global change. For those choosing to volunteer overseas, the experience can be inspiring, help to create more active global citizens as well as provide people with a better knowledge and understanding of development.

“The benefits to the individual and their careers can be huge as well as the relationships built between young people and local communities,” said Alex Kent, Director of International Strategy at Restless Development. For Alex, the significant impact on volunteers, communities and global change from volunteering through ICS can be justified given it accounts for a small percentage of the UK’s aid budget.

However, some might question whether spending £75 million sending more than 20,000 young people overseas, is more beneficial than spending that money on sustainable long-term development in these countries.

What about the hosts? Is there a danger that voluntourism might create dependency amongst local communities rather than the infrastructure needed to sustain their development? In Ghana, people were less likely to buy health insurance in the knowledge they could receive the medication they needed from the international volunteers visiting every few months. Working overseas should be about creating meaningful change and for volunteers that come and go this can be difficult to achieve.

As Dr. Jim Butcher, Reader in the Geography of Tourism at Canterbury Christ Church University pointed out, while local communities may gain superficially from the support offered by volunteers, the longer term impact is often harder to measure and;

“What matters is the activity and whether it’s well organised, well-conceived, well managed and collaborative with those national communities. [That] is the definition of good impact.”

In short-term volunteering, there needs to be an equal benefit to all – volunteers, not-for-profits, and hosts. The voluntourism industry shows no signs of slowing and there is an urgent need for those involved to adapt so that volunteer experiences have meaning and improve quality of life. Organisations can do more to shift from the commercialisation of volunteering and offer better structured and thought-out opportunities that are embedded in the needs of the communities they aim to help.

What can volunteers do?

Good-quality volunteering projects are led by communities and place the greatest value on working in partnership. Volunteering in the short term requires having the knowledge and understanding of the support they need and the skills we as individuals can bring to a developing country context.

When selecting overseas volunteering placements, we can ask:

·        Do we have the right skills for the role?

·        How will our money be spent?

·        What benefit will there be to the community?

·        How much can we really achieve in two weeks?

Recognising the value of short-term volunteering for both volunteers and local communities requires a deeper understanding of the type of work being undertaken. Development is complex and the proliferation of westerners volunteering overseas raises an important question around who in fact should be contributing to development – volunteers or paid workers.

While volunteering doesn’t offer a solution to development, it can be a valuable tool for empowering young people to take action on global issues. Achieving change is about working together and while short-term volunteering can be a good place to start, it is important to identify the projects that do more good than harm.

Find out more

Development in Action offers responsible volunteering placements overseas in partnership with NGOs throughout India. Find out more about our India Internship Program

You can watch the full debate on You Tube here



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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